Improving circular systems related to the collection, recovery and management of organic waste will help local communities reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the accumulation of food-contaminated packaging in their landfills. There is a growing need for new strategies to strengthen the management of this category of waste, as more localities ban food waste from landfills and/or extend producer responsibility for waste management to manufacturers, especially for packaging.
Researchers from the New Materials Institute at the University of Georgia will help their hometown and five other U.S. communities improve organic waste management practices through a two-year project funded by a $1.2 million grant from the Walmart Foundation. The research will produce organic waste management strategies that communities can adopt and scale, based on their population and resources. Organic waste includes food scraps and food-soiled packaging, as well as yard waste.
Diverting food waste from landfills to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions is a top priority for the U.S. government, but the local communities tasked with managing this waste stream currently lack the infrastructure and strategies to provide improvements. To learn about current practices and conditions, the team will first conduct surveys and interviews with waste management, restaurant and business stakeholders, as well as residents of apartments and single-family homes. For granular solutions that can be modeled for a variety of community sizes, the team will partner with two cities in each of three population densities: 400,000+, around 100,000, and under 40,000.
Using the Circularity Assessment Protocol (CAP), developed at the New Materials Institute, the team will gain insight into local tipping fees, the types of waste management technologies used in a community, their associated costs, and their availability to consumers. The CAP will also provide data on the most commonly used products in communities, local recycling trends and other consumer behaviors related to waste management. This assessment helps identify what type of waste is leaking into local environments and why, and facilitates the development of strategies to minimize leakage.
“We will investigate the root causes of buried organics in these communities to identify collection gaps. The data will also guide our design of organic waste collection technologies to fill the gaps we find and accelerate the diversion of this waste,” said Evan White, co-principal investigator of the project and director of the institute’s bioseniatics lab, which studies degradation in simulated environments.
The second part of their project will focus on the deployment and testing of these safe and hygienic organic waste collection technologies, bins that vary in size, complexity and operation depending on local needs. Researchers will also lead workshops to help educate people about composting and best waste management practices.
In the United States, more food waste goes to landfill than any other material. It accounts for more than 24% of the municipal solid waste stream and is the nation’s third largest methane generator, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. By diverting landfilled food waste to composting sites, individuals can reduce their own carbon footprint.
Currently, four states – Maine, Oregon, Massachusetts and California – have passed legislation to divert food waste from landfills to reduce GHG emissions. Maine and Oregon passed extended producer responsibility laws for packaging in 2021, and at least six states are considering similar legislation for their 2022 sessions.
Other principal investigators on the project include Jenna Jambeck, professor emeritus of environmental engineering at the Georgia Athletic Association and head of the circular computing lab at the New Materials Institute; Jason Locklin, director of the New Materials Institute, distinguished scholar at the College of Engineering and professor of chemistry; and Branson W. Ritchie, research professor emeritus who is director of technology development and implementation for the infectious diseases laboratory and institute.